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Grains of Gold

Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler

In 1941, philosopher and poet Gendun Chopel (1903–51) sent a large manuscript by ship, train, and yak across mountains and deserts to his homeland in the northeastern corner of Tibet. He would follow it five years later, returning to his native land after twelve years in India and Sri Lanka. But he did not receive the welcome he imagined: he was arrested by the government of the regent of the young Dalai Lama on trumped-up charges of treason. He emerged from prison three years later a broken man and died soon after.
Gendun Chopel was a prolific writer during his short life. Yet he considered that manuscript, which he titled Grains of Gold, to be his life’s work, one to delight his compatriots with tales of an ancient Indian and Tibetan past, while alerting them to the wonders and dangers of the strikingly modern land abutting Tibet’s southern border, the British colony of India. Now available for the first time in English, Grains of Gold is a unique compendium of South Asian and Tibetan culture that combines travelogue, drawings, history, and ethnography. Gendun Chopel describes the world he discovered in South Asia, from the ruins of the sacred sites of Buddhism to the Sanskrit classics he learned to read in the original. He is also sharply, often humorously critical of the Tibetan love of the fantastic, bursting one myth after another and finding fault with the accounts of earlier Tibetan pilgrims. Exploring a wide range of cultures and religions central to the history of the region, Gendun Chopel is eager to describe all the new knowledge he gathered in his travels to his Buddhist audience in Tibet.
At once the account of the experiences of a tragic figure in Tibetan history and the work of an extraordinary scholar, Grains of Gold is an accessible, compelling work animated by a sense of discovery of both a distant past and a strange present.

456 pages | 74 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


 “Gendun Chopel’s Grains of Gold is the magnum opus of arguably the single most brilliant Tibetan scholar of the twentieth century, and the team of Donald S. Lopez Jr. and renowned translator Thupten Jinpa is the ideal combination of talents to expertly render it into faithful but accessible English. This excellent translation will be enthusiastically (and gratefully) welcomed by both scholars and general readers.”

Lauran Hartley, Columbia University

“It is a delight to welcome the English translation of Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler, by Tibet’s towering intellectual figure of the twentieth century, Gendun Chopel. He considered this among his best works, and it will remain a part of his rich contribution to the cultural and literary heritage of Tibet.”

Kasur Tenzin N. Tethong, Director of Tibetan Service, Radio Free Asia

“An extraordinary travel journal / historical essay by Tibet’s outstanding intellectual and artist of the twentieth century. Translated with grace and precision, Grains of Gold gives us a rare glimpse of how Asian religion and life appeared from the perspective of the Tibetan plateau. We hear in this work a brilliant and entirely original voice, meditating on tradition and modernity and all that they mean on the eve of the end of the world as he knew it.”

Janet Gyatso, Harvard University

“Gendun Chopel, scholar, monk and traveler, was one of the greatest Tibetan intellectual figures of the twentieth century. Grains of Gold is one of his finest literary works dealing with his travels in India, a country central to the Tibetan Buddhist world. Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr. have provided the first translation of his magnum opus, one that beautifully retains and invokes Gedun Chopel’s sense of amusement and critical engagement with his surroundings. It serves as an indispensable source for students, scholars, and general readers of Tibetan literary history.”

Tsering Shakya, President of the International Association for Tibetan Studies

“This fascinating publication sheds light on some of the innermost thoughts of artist, writer and scholar Gendün Chöphel, one of Tibet's most exceptional intellectuals of the 20th Century. . . . The reader gains an invaluable insight into the perspective of a Tibetan beyond the borders of the Land of Snows; one that is simultaneously critical, humorous, and unique, and ranges from the history of India to observations of Tibetan habits and customs.”

Tibet Foundation Newsletter

Table of Contents


By Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

1          First, How I Set Out from Lhasa

2          General Formation of the Land of India and How It Acquired Its Name

3          How the Lands Were Given Their Names

4          The Snow Mountains of the North and Analysis of Related Issues

5          What the Famous Places of the Past Are Like

6          On Men, Women, Food, Drink, and Various Apparel

7          Identification of Various Species of Flowers and Trees and How to Recognize Them

8          Writing Systems of Various Regions of Past and Present

9          On the Linguistic Rules of the Tibetan Language

10        The Inscriptions of the Dharma King Aśoka Carved on the Rock Face of Mount Girnar

11        The Gupta Dynasty

12        The Pāla Dynasty

13        From 1,600 Years after the Passing of the Buddha to the Present

14        On the History of Siṅghala

15        On the Conditions and the Customs of the Tibetan People in Ancient Times

16        The Religion of the Tīrthikas

17        Conclusion

Appendix A: Tibetan Transliteration

Appendix B: Glossary of Terms



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